U.K. 5G landmass coverage increases, but still has long way to go

Mobile network operators typically focus on population coverage when they provide the latest 5G coverage figures, but landmass coverage is crucial if MNOs are to serve all corners of their respective markets.

As indicated by the latest Connected Nations report from U.K. regulator Ofcom, there are still often huge discrepancies between population and landmass coverage.

Indeed, the report shows that while landmass coverage for 5G across individual MNOs is steadily increasing, it still remains relatively low overall, ranging from 11% to 38% at the high confidence level of availability, and 6% to 26% at the very high confidence level.

That compares with 93% coverage of U.K. premises, up from 78% in 2022. Further, only 25% of premises (at high confidence) are covered by all four MNOs: BT/EE, Three UK, Virgin Media O2 (VM O2) and Vodafone UK.

Ofcom further observed that BT/EE retains the most extensive 5G coverage at the very high confidence level, reaching over 26% of the U.K. landmass and at least 63% of outside premises. Three UK has the most extensive 5G coverage at the high confidence level, reaching over 38% of landmass and 78% of outside premises.

Most of the 5G networks in the U.K. are currently based on the non-standalone version, meaning they remain anchored to the 4G core. However, Ofcom said the market is beginning to see the transition to mobile 5G standalone (5G SA) rollouts, moving from a trial phase reported in 2022 to around 2,000 mobile 5G SA sites commercially deployed this year.

Vodafone UK became the first MNO to launch a 5G SA network for private customers in July, while BT/EE recently hinted that a launch is imminent. VM O2 has focused thus far on a portable commercial 5G SA private network with plug-and-play capability. Vodafone and Three are hoping to merge their operations soon and recently highlighted how the combination of their operations would accelerate 5G SA deployment.

The other “Gs”, and open RAN

Meanwhile, as 5G continues to be rolled out, 4G services “continue to provide the fundamental backbone of most consumers’ experience,” Ofcom observed.

About 98% of premises have outdoor 4G coverage from all MNOs. The U.K. landmass covered by the 4G networks of individual MNOs ranges from 80% to 87%. However, MNOs have an obligation to provide 4G coverage across 88% of the U.K. landmass by the end of June 2024, although previous reports have suggested that Three, Vodafone and VM O2 have asked for an extension of the deadline.

The MNOs are also moving ahead with closing down legacy 2G and 3G networks in order to free up spectrum and reduce overall operational costs. Indeed, all four have committed to switching off their 2G and 3G networks by 2033 at the latest.

Vodafone became the first network to switch off some of its 3G services in March 2023 and expects to complete its switch-off in early 2024.

BT/EE piloted its 3G switch-off in Warrington in July 2023 and is planning to switch off its national 3G network in early 2024, starting in January. Three expects to complete its 3G switch-off by the end of 2024 and VM O2 in 2025.

Ofcom noted that Vodafone, BT/EE and VM O2 have not yet confirmed a date for switching off their 2G networks, while Three does not operate a 2G service. The regulator also estimates that there are 2.4 million devices reliant on 2G or 3G networks, of which just over half a million are residential customers with a 3G device. Less than 3% of all mobile data traffic is now carried on 3G networks, with 3G data traffic having decreased by an average of 44% year on year.

With regard to open radio access network (RAN) deployments, the U.K. government in collaboration with the four major U.K. MNOs reaffirmed the ambition for 35% of network traffic to take place over open and interoperable systems (Open RAN) by 2030.

Ofcom noted that currently, open RAN deployment remains limited, with around 40 sites reported this year compared to fewer than 20 last year. In October, Vodafone UK said it had deployed 22 sites at two locations and was in the process of deploying seven more sites by the end of that month.